Global Policy Forum

Three Generations of UN-Civil Society Relations:


By Tony Hill

April 2004

The First Generation

In the span of time since the UN's creation in 1945, it is possible to speak of two generations, and the emergence of a third generation, of UN-Civil Society relations. The first, lasting up to the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, involved mostly International NGOs (INGOs) of different varieties, including professional and business associations that were granted formal consultative relations with the UN (ECOSOC) in recognition of their international standing. Just as the Cold War shaped the inter-governmental deliberative processes of the UN, so too did it impact strongly on the dynamics and role of INGOs at the UN. What is striking about this period is how little actual engagement there was of INGOs in the work of the UN. NGO forums may have been organized around UN Conferences but they remained more or less autonomous, commenting on UN deliberations at arms length. There were some exceptions to this, in particular the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, and the work of International Coalition for Development Action (ICDA) and others that engaged in the North-South Dialogue for a NIEO (under UNCTAD auspices) through the 1970s and early 1980s. By and large, however, the relations between the UN and NGOs in the first generation were more of a formal and ceremonial nature rather than of a political nature.

This is not to say that the role of INGOs in the first generation of UN-Civil Society relations was unimportant or inconsequential, far from it. The first generation of non-governmental organizations brought many new ideas and eloquent spokespersons to the work of the UN. Above all, they established the right of non-governmental actors to participate in UN deliberations, and gave real, practical expression to the possibilities opened up by Article 71 of the UN Charter. But that was a different political epoch, prior to the emergence of global civil society comprised of international, regional and national non-governmental organizations of all kinds, the emergence of the UN and it's system of organizations as the backbone of the world system of global governance, and the emergence of new ideas and practices of democratic governance involving the on-going participation of citizens and their organizations in governance processes.

The Second Generation

The ending of the Cold War and the decisions taken by the UN to embark upon a series of major World Conferences and Summits through the 1990s, ushered in a second generation of NGOs and UN-NGO relationships. Large numbers of non-governmental actors, in particular, national NGOs from developing countries, from the Western hemisphere and, albeit to a lesser extent, from East-Central European post-communist societies, appeared around the major UN Conferences on Environment and Development, Population and Development, Human Rights, Women's Rights, Social Development, Human Settlements and Food Security, and their preparatory and follow-up processes. In marked contrast to the first generation of UN relations with non-governmental actors, the newly-emerged national and regional NGOs sought to engage directly in intergovernmental deliberations and, through advocacy and mobilization work, influence their outcomes. At the same time many of the traditional International NGOs began adapting to these new realities and reinventing themselves – with varying degrees of success – while many new forms of global and transnational organizations began to emerge such as the Oxfam family, the Third World Network, and the International Coalition for a Criminal Court. It is also true to say that over this period the presence of the private economic sector at the UN started to become much more marked.

In 1993, partly in response to the experience of NGO participation in the Rio Conference of 1992, a working group established by ECOSOC began a review and evaluation of relations with NGOs and Civil Society, leading three years later to the adoption of Resolution 1996/31 as the formal, legal framework for UN-NGO relations. Resolution 1996/31 replaced Resolution 1296 (XLIV) of 1968 and advanced on it by explicitly opening up UN consultative status to national NGOs – despite the efforts of some of the first generation of INGOs who allied with some of the most reluctant UN Member States to try to prevent this opening up to national (and regional) NGOs. Over the seven years since 1996 there has been an exponential growth of NGOs, many of them national NGOs, applying for consultative status, with the number of those acquiring it growing from 744 in 1992 to 2,350 in 2003 with, today, a growing backlog of applications waiting for review by ECOSOC's Committee on NGOs. At the same time, for example, around 2,000 representatives of over 600 UN-affiliated NGOs participated in UN/DPI's 2003 annual conference for NGOs. Over 700 NGOs, many of them new to the UN, participated in the recent World Summit on the Information Society. The 12th Session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, in follow up to the Johannesburg Summit, in April 2004, is expecting up to 1,000 NGO representatives to be present, as is the 2004 Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights.

The second generation of UN-NGO relations is marked by the much larger scale of the NGO presence across the UN system, the more diverse institutional character of the organizations involved, now including national, regional and international NGOs, networks, coalitions and alliances, and the greater diversity of the issues that NGOs seek to address at the UN. Above all, the second generation of UN-NGO relations are essentially political and reflect the motivation of NGOs to engage with the UN as part of the institutional architecture of global governance. This should not hide the fact that while the majority of civil society participants act as a 'loyal opposition' to the UN (i.e. do not put into question its existence, principles and objectives), the opening of the UN to national NGOs has also allowed the participation of very conservative national non-governmental actors largely, but not only, based in the United States, who seek to roll-back or curtail UN agreements in areas such as women's reproductive rights, firearms control, and pre-emptive military action, and who even advocate the virtual abolition of the UN in some cases.

Another important feature of the second generation of UN-NGO relations has been the significant increase in operational cooperation between the Secretariats of UN organizations and non-governmental actors. UN agencies such as UNFPA, UNICEF, UNDP, and others such as IFAD, FAO, UNDCP and ILO, collectively fund a significant and diverse range of non-governmental projects and activities in the global South, unlike in the past when UN system funding was channelled almost exclusively to governments. UN funding for non-governmental actors is also significant in humanitarian crises and refugee-related work (WFP, UNHCR and others) with between 33% and 50% of UNHCR's operational budget disbursed through NGOs, both national and international, with efforts to give priority to the former. In addition, there are large numbers of examples of voluntary – as opposed to contractual – cooperation between non governmental actors and UN secretariats (such as the current Civil Society Hearings in the run-up to UNCTAD XI in June of this year and the International Planning Committee, constituted by non-governmental actors internationally, and involving groups such as Via Campesina, to engage with follow-up to the 1996 World Food Summit and the Rome-based food agencies—FAO, IFAD, WFP).

Similarly, there are many examples of cooperation between the UN system's field offices and information centres in the developing countries and the local non-governmental community although it is recognized by the agencies concerned (UNDP, UNICEF and others), that progress has been patchy and more efforts need to be made in general to connect UN country and regional offices to local and regional civil society. UNDP, for example, has introduced awards for Resident Coordinators whose office works with local civil society on innovative projects and initiatives. While most attention focuses on civil society participation in the inter-governmental processes of UN World Conferences and Summits, and their follow-up at the international level, this growing field of cooperation of various forms between UN secretariats and offices, and civil society organizations, described above, is a significant development in the practice of the UN system as part of the global governance and implementation architecture that will continue to evolve and develop.

A Third Generation?

The outline of a possible third generation of UN-Civil Society relations has now begun to emerge. This involves like-minded coalitions of governments and civil society (International Criminal Court, Landmine Convention), and various forms of multi-stakeholder, public-private, public policy networks and partnerships such as the Global Compact, the GAVI initiative and the over 200 "Track II" partnership agreements emerging from the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in August-September 2002. These new forms of partnership relations currently co-exist with the second-generation political and advocacy role of civil society and raise many critical questions concerning the role of the UN as a broker of partnerships, the future of multilateralism as a form of global governance and the future of the UN's relations with the second generation of largely advocacy NGOs, many of whom view these latest developments with scepticism, to say the least.

Today, an unprecedented number and variety of civil society and business-related organizations participate in the work of the UN system. At the political level, the UN has shifted from an organization in which only governments spoke to only governments, to one that now brings together the political power of governments, the economic power of the corporate sector, and the 'public opinion' power of civil society (and the global communication and information media) as participants in the global policy dialogue – without denying that there are areas of UN work, disarmament, for example, where today there is a clear civil society deficit in the governance architecture*. The evolution of this third generation of UN-Civil Society relations cannot be predicted in advance since it will depend upon forces whose interaction will shape outcomes. Within the UN system, the report of the Secretary-General's High Level Panel and its ensuing recommendations and follow-up, will certainly set the political tone, and a practical agenda, for effectively managing, and benefiting from, the UN's engagement with civil society. Outside the UN it will very much depend upon the extent to which global civil society continues to invest its 'public opinion' power and resources in UN processes. UN work in human rights, food security, economic and social development, environment and sustainable development, the Least-Developed Countries, disarmament, international justice and law, security, humanitarian emergencies and refugees will continue to attract global civil society constituencies concerned with influencing the outcomes of policy deliberations on this set of global issues. The Millennium Development Campaign also appears to be mobilizing significant new constituencies of non-governmental actors in support of the Millennium Development Goals. Nevertheless, it is striking that the global social justice movement that expresses itself through the World and Regional Social Forums that have been held since the historic Porto Allegre World Social Forum in 2001, have largely ignored the UN – although some of the leading organizations of the Social Forums are also active at the UN, and it does show that the UN is still perceived in a different, more benign light than the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO, who are severely criticized at these gatherings.

Until now, the Forums have had a policy of not engaging with the institutions of global governance and their member governments although, following Mumbai in 2004, the question of whether and how to engage now seems to be on the political agenda of the global social justice movement. Whether and how this may impact on the UN in the future depends to a large extent upon the degree to which the UN provides a platform for discussing alternative ways of managing globalization and for realizing progress towards the goals enshrined in agreements such as Financing for Development, the World Summit on Sustainable Development and the Millennium Declaration. The recent report of the ILO-initiated World Commission on the Social Dimensions of Globalization, (in effect, the follow up to the 1995 Copenhagen World Summit on Social Development) marks an important new contribution in that regard.

Looking Forward

Our global governance architecture, embracing the UN system and many other organizations and institutions beyond, is at once in crisis and developing rapidly; civil society has become a vital driver of change and democratisation of global decision-making. Civil society is drawn to the UN because it provides fora, based on the ethics, moral principles and aspirations of the Charter, in which governments exercise their power at the international level and in which even the smallest state has formal equality with the most powerful. There are many forces at play as the UN moves to a third generation of relationships with civil society, and many unknowns. The dialectic at play will hinge upon the degree to which governments invest political capital (and financial resources) in the UN system as it moves forward as the existing backbone of the global governance system; and the degree to which civil society continues to invest its 'public opinion' power in UN fora both to influence and empower governments and counter the power and influence of the private sector.

The international community has, by and large, accepted that good governance, nationally and internationally, demands the participation of independent groups and organizations of civil society, and representatives of the private economy, in governance processes. At the international level, and across the UN system, tremendous progress has been made in opening-up intergovernmental decision-making to the participation and scrutiny of civil society, thereby making it transparent and accountable in a way that the UN's far-sighted founders could never have imagined. Civil society has also enriched intergovernmental deliberations by bringing forward new information, different experiences and perspectives and has contributed enormously to the practical implementation of global governance outcomes. Planet-wide problems today ”poverty, epidemics, environmental destruction, human rights abuses, arms proliferation and insecurity”can only be addressed globally. Despite recent setbacks, the architecture,dynamics and processes of global governance have to maintain forward momentum and evolution if these problems are to be adequately addressed. Global Governance will continue to be a work-in-progress with enormous challenges to be surmounted, but there is simply no alternative.

Explanatory Note

By global governance is meant a vision and a dynamic and open-ended process which seeks to achieve the coming together at the international level of national governments and other political authorities, civil society and the private economic sector, to develop consensus and reach agreements to take collective action to address global issues, problems and threats and to promote trust, harmony and well-being, security and cooperation between nation states and peoples of the world.

* Although the UN Conference on Disarmament, which has been paralysed for a number of years by the lack of consensus on a programme of work, has just announced a number of measures to enhance the participation of NGOs in its work.



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